Colleges Are Fumbling Their Response to Coronavirus—Again

A Black woman with long, black, curly hair, stands on a college campus in a mask, touting books in her arms

Photo credit: FatCamera/Getty Images

University systems aren’t learning from past mistakes, and it’s getting pretty old. Across the United States, most colleges spent the spring and summer months planning to reopen for in-person classes in the fall. According to Inside Higher Ed, these plans focused on “social distancing protocols, mask-wearing requirements, low-density living arrangements and regular testing for students and employees,” but failed to factor in the human element: noncompliance. With Notre Dame, Michigan State, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and other colleges allowing their students to participate in remote learning after hundreds of new COVID-19 cases emerged during the first weeks of the fall semester, it seems that many are back in the same exact situation that they were in March, when the coronavirus forced them to close their campuses and send students home.

Apparently, few institutions are prepared to rapidly move courses online—again—and students are going to get half-baked instruction as a result. Emerson College, the school where I teach, is asking instructors to take on more in-person classes because faculty members have pulled out of their obligations. Teachers and students are scared, but colleges are still insisting on holding physical classes and the affiliated faculty (also known as adjuncts) are being used as cannon fodder. In June, most epidemiologists thought it would take between three and 12 months before we could “send kids to school, camp or daycare” or “work in a shared office,” but most colleges still continued their reopening plans. Universal Design for Learning is a readily available and inclusive approach that colleges could have adapted to prepare for fall, but they didn’t and now students and teachers are casualties in the fight to pretend as if the pandemic isn’t happening.

By the end of July, the New York Times had already concluded that more than 6,600 coronavirus cases could be linked back to U.S. colleges. So why didn’t colleges start taking steps to hold classes remotely then? Why did they cling to the idea that students would return to campus, everyone would sit six feet apart and coronavirus would be kept firmly at bay when there was so much evidence to the contrary? More important, why aren’t all colleges switching to online instruction now? Instead, overburdened affiliated faculty have been asked to remediate all of their course content for an entirely different mode of instruction with little warning. Colleges originally claimed remote learning wouldn’t be as fulfilling as in-person meetings, which was their reasoning for opting for a return to campuses. A self-fulfilling prophecy, quality remote instruction isn’t possible when it isn’t adequately developed before it’s needed.

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My program director told me that online sections may become available, but I would have to wait until we were closer to the start of the semester to see. I was also told to fill out an accommodations request with human resources and, after doing so, I’d have an interview with them explaining what accommodations I’d need and why. Fortunately, my program director found an online section I could teach, sparing me from having to prove my needs. While another Emerson instructor told me that she was able to secure an online class, other affiliated faculty and graduate student teachers were forced to choose between teaching an in-person class or forsaking their livelihood. Many opted not to teach. It seems that full-time faculty members are becoming more cognizant of the risks posed by sending a bunch of college kids back into crowded spaces without supervision or government oversight, hence the influx of last-minute emails looking for instructors—even if they’ve never taught in a particular discipline.

Like I said, colleges are opting for half-baked instruction and half-baked course construction for students who could be COVID-19 carriers. And if you think that undergraduate students will abstain from social functions, then you don’t know undergrads. Notable examples are Syracuse University’s admonishing letter to the student body about having an off-campus party and Northeastern’s dismissal of 11 students for not following social distancing protocol. It’s asinine for college executives to assume that still-developing 18-year-olds are responsible enough to abstain from social contact when it’s clear the colleges are shifting the burden to students in order to hold in-person classes and justify high tuition and facility costs. If you think I’m being harsh toward college students, I assure you I’m not. Notre Dame has already proven off-campus parties will happen and it now has 222 cases of COVID-19 reported—two weeks into the fall semester. UNC-Chapel Hill only made it one week into the semester before reporting 130 cases.

On Twitter, users are replying to @mr_ian’s tweet, which reads, “In honor of our universities relying on the flawless decision-making of 30,000 undergraduates in order to open, please quote tweet this with the dumbest decision you witnessed in college,” with the stupid things they did in college. It currently has more than 5,000 comments. Some highlights include:

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I point to these examples because they aren’t simply drunken mistakes: They show the ignorance of young adults who simply haven’t learned the proper protocol of conducting themselves. Now, add a pandemic into the mix, and we get colleges becoming superspreader locations. Meanwhile, colleges such as Michigan State aren’t taking in chances. Officials wrote, “Given the current status of the virus—particularly what we are seeing at other institutions as they repopulate their campus communities—it is unlikely we can prevent widespread transmission of COVID-19 between students if our undergraduates return to campus.” I predict that by the end of September the surge in coronavirus cases will force the vast majority of colleges online. Accessibility for students with disabilities will again fall by the wayside and course content will suffer from a different modality than it was designed for.

College officials have said that they reopened campuses to maintain the quality of education, but we know that’s not true since an inevitable quick shift online degrades quality. The answer is more disheartening: money. The health and well-being of the instructors and students came second to college’s bottom line. Emerson College went as far as bringing in cherry-picked epidemiologists to tell faculty that reopening would be okay, despite hundreds of other epidemiologists saying otherwise. It didn’t have to be this way, but this is what happens when colleges are more concerned with sports, the money they get from dormitories, or the ability to charge facility fees than they are with the health of their students and their professors. Tragedies happen when colleges care more about money than developing minds.


by Brooke Knisley
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Brooke Knisley is an instructor in Emerson College’s Writing Studies program. She is working on a memoir about trauma and its damage. Find her on Twitter or Instagram. She has balance issues.